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Notes from Wordharvest

Over the November 11th weekend I attended the Wordharvest Writer’s Conference in Santa Fe. As was the case last year, I learned a great deal and got the opportunity to meet excellent authors whose primary goal was to help other like-minded people reach publication. The authors who presented at the conference sold and autographed their books in the evening. At one of the book signings I had the good fortune to meet David Morrell, and I bought his nonfiction book, Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing. While he’s best known for First Blood, The Brotherhood of the Rose, and more recently, The Naked Edge, his writing advice was fascinating. With a forty year career, he has a lot to offer. During one of his sessions he discussed the history of publishing in the US, from the first paperbacks to the current trend toward e-books. I highly recommend him if you can catch him at a conference.

Instead of recapping the session I’ll talk about his Lifetime of Writing book because it provided a different perspective than my own. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I’m a planner and an outliner. He’s more of the opinion that the outlining crushes creativity. Generally, the argument has either been made to plan – or not to plan. Not much gray area. But Morrell presented the process in such a way that I’m questioning my methods. I’ll still outline, but I plan on combining it with some free writing.

Morrell takes a psychological approach to writing. For example, he says he understands the desire for the subconscious to “transport us from boring real-life situations into pleasurable fantasies,” but why do we sometimes fantasize about terrifying situations? My own theory is that fantasizing possible disasters helps prepare us mentally to deal with bad situations should they actually happen. However, that’s not his point. He suggests that these terrifying daydreams are messages from our subconscious begging to be explored on paper.

I find myself at times with these weird daydreams and vaguely wonder why my mind is so twisted, but I’ve never given much thought to them in terms of fiction. So, that’s one new goal. I plan to stay more in tune with the various psychotic thoughts that float through my brain. Sounds healthy, right?

Another suggestion Morrell offers is — write as you think through an idea — instead of waiting until you have a well-formed idea to write about. There’s actually a big distinction, and I think the difference could help people with the desire to write, but who don’t know how to begin.

Basically, he suggests sitting down and having a conversation with yourself about a question or idea you have. Instead of ruminating on an idea for days (or weeks) on end, get the idea down on paper, and write through a series of questions you continue asking yourself.  Why? Why would a character do that? Why is that interesting to you – or to a reader? Debate the plot with yourself on paper. Morrell claims this will keep you from making major errors further down the road. And, you’ll be amazed how deep you can get into a simple idea by just continuing to pose questions.

I’ll do a brief exercise below just to illustrate:

A basic idea that just came to me: A daughter discovers a military pension card for a man she’s never heard of after her mother dies. She finds the card in her mother’s wallet along with a worn photograph of a man she’s never seen.

The questions begin…

Why would this interest a reader?

Because her father died of a heart attack the same month and year that the pension card was activated. He was never in the service.

Was the woman’s mother connected in any way to the man – outside of the card and the photograph?

The woman starts digging into her mother’s financial situation. She discovers that what she assumed was her father’s health insurance settlement was actually being supplemented by the other man’s military pension. She begins to think that her mother was committing fraud.

Why would her mother commit fraud?

OK – you get the idea. I like this because it’s a great way of digging deeper and deeper into the storyline. I realized when I plan that I often think linearly – this scene leads to this scene which leads to this scene, etc. I tend to think about the plot in terms of cause-and-effect. I’ve finished the first draft of book 2, so I plan on taking my original premise for the book and going through this same exercise with it – probably several times – to see what kind of additional questions I can unearth. Hopefully I’ll end up with a richer plot because of it. So, thank you Mr. Morrell!